Nine months in F1
From the glorious to the ghastly, we’ve witnessed it all in a turbulent season of F1. And the repercussions are still being felt…
By Rob Widdows
When the teams arrived in Melbourne in March precious few indicators pointed to who might have made the best use of a new set of rules. Pre-season testing at Barcelona suggested that Brawn could be the big surprise despite its last-minute rise from the ashes of the Honda team. And so it proved. Ross had scrutinised the small print and produced a very neat car with a double diffuser and a Mercedes-Benz engine. But nobody predicted the extent of its advantage. Rival teams, including Williams and Toyota who also had the new diffusers, were shocked when Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello locked out the front row and scored a one-two finish. Some cried foul and sought clarification on the diffuser from the FIA, setting the tone for a controversial season.
To make matters worse, Lewis Hamilton started from the back of the grid thanks to a gearbox failure, then got into a terrible muddle with Jarno Trulli’s Toyota under yellow flags in the race. Trulli was penalised and it appeared that Hamilton had taken a brilliant third place against the odds. But it later transpired that a lie had been told to the stewards about the true sequence of events when Hamilton and Trulli met on track. What a mess.
Ferrari and Red Bull were nowhere, beaten by the Toro Rossos. BMW seemed to have made no progress, and the McLaren had no grip. Without exception, they moved on to Malaysia wondering what they could do about the Brawns. Toyota, starting the season well, came home third and fourth and we wondered if it finally understood this business.
Now for three races in a month. A punishing schedule began with another win for Button, the Malaysian GP red-flagged when torrential rain made racing impossible. Brawn had again put its marker down while Toyota and BMW flattered only to deceive.
Evidence from radio transmissions proved that McLaren had, as suspected, deliberately misled the stewards in Australia. Manager Davey Ryan was sacrificed and sent home, while Hamilton, in a most uncomfortable press conference, apologised profusely and looked very sorry for himself. Ron Dennis, meanwhile, was nowhere to be seen. Inconceivable as it was, Ron was forced to stay at home in the wake of the ‘lie gate’ revelations, not to be seen in the paddock again until season’s end in Abu Dhabi. This was serious. Hamilton, distracted by the meltdown, managed seventh in the race, a minute behind Button. Mark Webber salvaged something for Red Bull after Sebastian Vettel spun his race away. Adrian Newey had taken a close look at the Brawns and knew he had work to do – and fast – the FIA having ruled that a double diffuser was within the letter of the law, if perhaps not the spirit.
The form book was beginning to take shape, those with a bet on Button after Barcelona testing looking smug. How soon could the big-spending teams get into the wind tunnel, crank up the computers and bolt on a Brawn-type aero package? With just two weeks before China, things were not about to change. Or were they? A fortnight later, in Shanghai, Red Bull took a one-two victory ahead of the Brawns. What was this all about? Not much, actually, not at this point anyway. Ferrari and Renault were dismally off the pace but McLaren got both cars in the points. In Bahrain, Button was back on top.
After four races, the cars fitted with the KERS system had made no real impression, the complexities seeming to outweigh the extra horsepower. The device was something of a damp squib but McLaren and Ferrari persisted with it. BMW and Renault talked about ditching it. In Spain Button won again while Barrichello began to complain of favouritism in the Brawn camp and seemed to struggle getting his car away from the grid at times. Ross, ever the diplomat, knocked all that on the head.
Max Mosley said Formula 1 could survive without Ferrari – this in response to Luca di Montezemelo’s criticism of proposed budget caps. Clouds were gathering: FOTA had set off on the warpath. Here we go. Button won yet again in Monaco, a championship now looking distinctly possible. In the principality Prince Albert said F1 could not afford to lose Ferrari, Mr Ecclestone feared they might depart and Mr Mosley denied that a crisis was imminent.
On the track Hamilton said McLaren had no hope of results any time soon. Kimi Räikkönen, appearing to have lost interest while Felipe Massa grabbed the high ground, got himself on the podium in Monaco. Red Bull began to catch up, adding new parts to the cars every time out. BMW struggled still, Robert Kubica saying the car was simply not good enough. He was told he’d have a double diffuser for Turkey. Williams showed flashes of speed in qualifying but failed to deliver on Sundays. By the end of the month it seemed that all-out war between the teams and the FIA was looming, and in the background both Lola and Prodrive lodged entries for 2010. Force India and Toro Rosso brought up the rear, while Nelson Piquet Jr was all at sea in a Renault that even Fernando Alonso found a handful.
Into the summer, and Button did it again in Turkey. The title was within his grasp after six wins from seven races. Barrichello had gearbox failure and Red Bull filled the other steps of the podium, just six seconds adrift. The times, were they about to change? They were. At Silverstone the Red Bull dominated, 40 seconds clear of Barrichello, and Newey’s new aero package looking supreme through the fast sweepers in Northamptonshire. Button seemed to have tightened up, qualifying badly, and languishing down the field in front of his home crowd. Williams – with Nico Rosberg anyway – and Toyota continued to pick up points, while the rest looked resigned to starting again in 2010.
Behind the scenes it was gloves off in the row between the teams (except Williams) and the FIA over how F1 should be structured in the future. FOTA, fed up with Mosley’s mission to cut costs, cap budgets and bend the rules for the new Cosworth-powered teams, decided it was going to break away and start its own championship. The Silverstone paddock was bristling with rumour and counter-rumour, team principals huddled in vociferous groups. Bernie Ecclestone simply said he wasn’t concerned, it would be alright in the end. He was right. On June 23 Mosley said he would run for re-election in the face of what he saw as a revolution. On June 24 he announced he would not in fact stand for another term and FOTA called off its threat to break away. F1 moves in mysterious ways.
It was at the Nürburgring that the season really began to shift in Red Bull’s favour. Brawn was having trouble, it said, in heating the tyres while Button began to look less confident, less in control of things. Webber won, with Vettel second, while the Brawns managed only fifth and sixth. Barrichello let his emotions get the better of him, stepping out of the car and blaming the team for costing him the race that day in Germany. Fed up with losing to Button, the Brazilian let rip at the team that rescued his career. Ross Brawn later calmed it all down. Rosberg and Massa continued to gather points and Toyota showed intermittent flashes of speed. Force India began to show form, but BMW was going backwards and Renault was still struggling with what was clearly a difficult car. Down the grid at Toro Rosso, Sébastien Bourdais had been replaced by Jaime Alguersuari. The Frenchman was threatening legal action.
In Hungary Hamilton won for McLaren, just reward for a remarkable team effort in turning round a terrible car. Button managed only seventh, nearly a minute behind. Massa crashed heavily, having been hit by a spring from Barrichello’s Brawn. He would be out for the rest of the season. Ferrari initially announced that Michael Schumacher would replace him, this news causing a great deal of excitement.
Renault driver Piquet would not be returning after the summer break, having been unceremoniously fired by his manager Flavio Briatore following a poor season. He would be replaced in Valencia by Frenchman Romain Grosjean. Piquet was not a happy boy…
Following Mosley’s decision not to stand again for president, Jean Todt and Ari Vatanen began campaigning to be the next man in the seat of power. On the money front, Richard Branson said he was considering taking his cash to the new Manor Motorsport team for 2010, saying he liked to support an underdog.
After the long summer break we reconvened in the sunshine of Valencia where Brawn was back on top, this time with a much-relieved Barrichello scoring his first GP win in five years, and Button down in seventh. Jenson looked tense, unsure of the car. The pressures of leading all season were getting to him. Both McLarens finished in the points while Vettel’s engine expired, meaning that Button’s immediate rivals failed to take advantage yet again. While Räikkönen grabbed third for Ferrari, Massa’s replacement Luca Badoer finished bog-last a lap behind the leader and behind Alguersuari’s Toro Rosso.
It was a low point for the Scuderia in a generally disappointing season. Schumacher’s much-anticipated return had been called off at the last minute, the seven-time champion saying he just wasn’t fit enough, having injured his neck in a motorbike test. Not to mention the fact that most other teams vetoed Ferrari’s request for the German to be allowed to test a 2009 car.
At the end of the month, BMW announced it was leaving F1 at the end of the year. How much more drama could we take? The answer came seven days later at Spa where Räikkönen won for Ferrari (Badoer, out of his depth, was last again) and Button crashed out on the opening lap. Now the applecart looked decidedly unsteady. But the real story of Spa was the sudden – and spectacular – arrival of Force India on the podium. Had Räikkönen not been able to use his KERS button, then Giancarlo Fisichella would have given Vijay Mallya’s team its maiden win. Starting from pole, Fisichella was soon out-dragged by the Ferrari but he chased Räikkönen all the way to the flag. Everyone knew the Merc-powered Force India was quick, with its slippery aero and lack of downforce, but this was extraordinary. Fisichella was immediately tipped to join Ferrari in place of the struggling Badoer.
Whispers of a major scandal were in the wind in the Ardennes, and at the end of the month Piquet Jr, in a sulk after being fired, dropped a bombshell on the paddock. He had been told to deliberately crash his Renault at Singapore in 2008, allowing Alonso to pit under yellows and win the race. What? He could not be serious.
As we arrived at Monza, Button and Brawn led their respective championships still, thanks to those early wins, though they looked increasingly under threat, especially from Red Bull. But by the end of Sunday Brawn had bounced back in style, Barrichello leading home Button in an emphatic victory. Ferrari gave the tifosi something to cheer with third for Räikkönen, but Fisichella, in at the deep end, was way off the pace in his first experience of KERS power. If only we had been able to see Schumacher in the car. Force India was fast again, Sutil coming in fourth, while new recruit Liuzzi impressed first time out in his home race. It was not a good weekend for Red Bull with Vettel down in eighth and Webber crashing out after just 10 laps. Advantage Brawn and Button as the teams headed for Singapore.
But it wasn’t the racing that was in the headlines. Piquet’s allegations, denied by Renault, had become the ‘crash-gate’ affair. Before the Grand Prix got under way in Singapore the FIA declared that, having examined the evidence, it found the Renault team guilty of race-fixing. In short order, Briatore and Pat Symonds were banished from the paddock, the latter admitting his part in the plot, although Renault was let off with a two-year suspended sentence. This news dominated proceedings in the darkness of the Far East. Formula 1 was stunned, reeling in the aftermath of its biggest-ever scandal. And there have been a few.
Meanwhile Hamilton won the race, Glock was second for Toyota and Alonso third for the ravaged Renault team. Nobody hit the wall – at least on purpose (we think). Vettel beat Button, but only by a point, while Webber retired. There was now something of a pattern emerging, with Red Bull breathing down Brawn’s neck with just three races to go.
This was getting serious for Jenson. Victory in Turkey back in June seemed a long time ago. Vettel won at Suzuka and Barrichello beat Button, the Brawns way down in seventh and eighth places. The Red Bull looked invincible in Japan. Yet again Button looked tense, qualified badly, and had it all to do on race day. Surely he wasn’t going to let it slip away?
The answer came emphatically at Interlagos on Sunday October 18. But it didn’t look good for Button after qualifying. On a damp track, following torrential rain, Barrichello stole pole with the other Brawn failing to get into Q3 and languishing in 14th place. But you need luck to win a title, and Jenson had some. First Vettel had started even further back, then a first-lap crash eliminated three cars ahead of him. But the rest was down to a reinvigorated and feisty Button, who fought his way up to fifth place to win his championship. He was further aided by Rubens who had a puncture, and by Vettel who finished only one place ahead of him. Webber won for Red Bull. Job done then, and one race to go.
Off track, we heard that Donington’s attempt to wrestle the British Grand Prix away from Silverstone had finally crumbled in a heap of debt and disinterest. Ecclestone said he would offer the contract to the BRDC…
A new race, at a new track, was the spectacular climax to a spectacular season. In the opulence of the Emirates, the teams found a stunning billion-dollar billiard table-smooth piece of asphalt on which to enjoy the end of term. The Abu Dhabi GP started in twilight and raced into the darkness of an Arabian night, the multi-coloured lights of Yas Marina twinkling in the background. All’s well that ends well. Or was it? Vettel won again – the third in a row for Red Bull – and Webber followed him home, closely pursued by Button. We wondered, not for the first time, what Red Bull might have done had it taken a double diffuser to Melbourne.
Then, just as we thought it was all over, Bernie announced that he had not yet done a deal with Silverstone and there was no point in any more talking. Then Bridgestone said it would withdraw from F1 at the end of 2010. Then, just a day later, Toyota pulled out with immediate effect. It had been that kind of season.
For full results and final standings, see p139